This song post has been on my to-do list for a long time. Then, when AK (over at Songs of Yore) did his brilliant twin posts on Bharat Darshan—small-town India, and metropolis India, through songs—I decided it was high time I did get this done. Songs about towns and cities abroad.
The ‘towns and cities abroad’ theme can be divided into two distinct parts: one, the songs which mention a foreign place (without necessarily transporting the scene to the place in question); and two, the songs which are actually set and filmed abroad but may not actually mention anything about the place. With Hindi cinema being relatively low budget in the earlier decades, films—even those that were mostly set abroad, like Dr Kotnis ki Amar Kahaani or the many ‘historical’ and mythological films set in the Middle East—were shot wholly in India. It was only in later years, especially in the 60s, that films began to have scenes set abroad and shot abroad. Singapore, An Evening in Paris, Night in London, Love in Tokyo, Aankhen, Around the World… suddenly, many of the big budget films were being shot abroad, sometimes even to the extent of almost the entire film (An Evening in Paris, Love in Tokyo) being set abroad.
Those songs—the ones shot abroad—merit a separate post, because so many of them (Akele-akele kahaan jaa rahe ho, O mere shahekhubaan, Raat ke humsafar, Aye meri zindagi tu ajnabi toh nahin, etc) have little to do with the place itself. In this list, I’m restricting myself to songs that actually name a city or town, whether or not the song itself is shot there. There are some overlaps, since some great songs about cities are set in the cities they talk about.
Without further ado, then. As always, these are all from pre-70s films that I’ve seen, and all mention a city or town (not country or province) that isn’t in India.
1. Mere piya gaye Rangoon (Patanga, 1949): To start with, right next door, in a neighbouring country. Rangoon (now Yangon), the capital of Burma, which was once part of the British Indian Empire (the two countries were separated in 1937). Although there have been several films featuring Burma (think Burma Road and Howrah Bridge), this delightful old song is the one I automatically connect with Rangoon. The city is evoked by some painted pagodas on the backdrop (not to mention some ‘Burmese’ women) for this stage performance, and the lungi-clad Gope, bemoaning his fate at being separated from his beloved wife, is a scream. Much fun.
2. Jeevan mein ek baar aana Singapore (Singapore, 1960): A little further east. Too many sites across the web cite Sangam (1964) as the first film to be shot abroad. Not so, because four years before Raj Kapoor made and acted in Sangam, younger brother Shammi Kapoor had acted in a film that wasn’t just named for a foreign city, but was filmed almost completely in Singapore, and starred a Singaporean actress (Maria Menado) as well.
Singapore had lots of good songs, including one (Rasa sayang re) which was a fairly faithful copy of a Malayan folk song. This one, though, which mentions the name of the city itself, is the one I’m choosing. Not that Jeevan mein ek baar aana Singapore is all about Singapore, but Maria Menado’s character uses the name of her home town—combined with some pretty gardens, some temples, and a bevy of sarong-clad beauties (not to mention some plaster monkeys which reminded me of modern Indian gardens)—to tempt Shammi Kapoor to come to Singapore. Not really needed, since he already is in the city, but still.
3. Jaapan, love in Tokyo (Love in Tokyo, 1966): Still in the east, but moving up north, to Japan. Love in Tokyo was one of those rare Hindi films of the 60s that was set almost completely in Japan, and it had several songs that were shot outdoors. If I were asked to pick my favourite of the ‘outdoor songs’ of this film, I’d choose the happy version of O mere shaahekhubaan, with Sayonara a close second. The title song is a little too boisterous for my taste and makes me wince: what would the Japanese have thought of a ‘romantic couple’ where the man dropped his girlfriend, or where they knocked over a passerby just because they weren’t looking where they were going?
But it does say a good bit about Tokyo: Yeh toh shahar mastaana, jiska andaaz maashukaana, deta hai pyaar ka paimaana, karta hai sabko deewaana (This city is carefree, its spirit is of a lover; its message is one of love, it intoxicates everyone).
And, before I go on to the next song, an instance of ‘misheard lyrics’: when my mother was a girl, she remembers one of the servants at their home lustily singing “Le gayi dil budhiya Jaapan ki”. Which says a lot about the women of Japan, if you think about it.
4. Chalo Honolulu (Sanam, 1951): And, after Japan, a sweep to right across the Pacific Ocean, landing in Hawaii (interestingly, one of the places where lots of Japanese immigrants to the US ended up). When I first began thinking of cities for this post, I was stumped when it came to American cities. Amreeka, dream of millions of wannabe Indian immigrants: surely there would be some songs there? But while parts of An Evening in Paris and Around the World (not to mention countless films in more recent years) are set in the US, there seem to be few (no?) songs mentioning American cities.
Then I remembered this one. It’s not set in Honolulu, it doesn’t even say much about Honolulu except that it’s a place refreshingly different from the oppressiveness of India, where love is so stifled—but it’s an utterly delightful song, nonetheless. The male voice (I don’t know who this is) and Shamshad Begum sing it with much pep, and the antics of Gope and Meena Kumari are so much fun.
5. Bade bhaiya laaye hain London se chhori (Ek Hi Raasta, 1956): Another leap across another ocean—this time, the Atlantic, the ‘pond’ that separates the Americas from Europe—and we land in a country which has appeared in Hindi cinema a fair bit: the UK. British colonialism, and the post-independence influx of Indian immigrants, make England a somewhat familiar locale: so while Purab aur Pachhim, Night in London and Pyaar ka Sapna were partially filmed in London, you had umpteen characters (invariably leads, both male and female) going off to England to study.
With the songs, I couldn’t think of many about London. There is the title song of Night in London, of course, and the (not pre-70s, unfortunately) London se aaya hoon from Vachan—and then there’s this song, which became a ear-worm for me the first time I heard it and which every now and then, keeps popping into my head and refusing to leave. It is, believe it or not, a children’s song, sung at a party by what are obviously very precocious children. London, besides its name, doesn’t figure here at all: it just happens to be the home town (one presumes) of the bride Bade bhaiya has got for himself.
Like the title song of Love in Tokyo, the title song of An Evening in Paris does justice to the city in question: it’s not just a word , not just a name put into the lyrics to rhyme with something else. Instead, the city forms an important part of the song, both in its lyrics as well as in its picturization (not to mention the fact that the song is actually a credits song, so the introduction to the film is through this song). Shammi Kapoor’s as-ever exuberant hero offers to show us the sights of Paris at night—and he does. And, since Paris is pretty much synonymous with romance, there’s a lot of egging on to fall in love—don’t miss the opportunity; take your chance at love.
7. Ge ge le ge le zara Timbaktu (Jhumroo, 1961): There are other songs about cities in Europe—Spy in Rome’s ‘Roaming in Rome’ comes to mind—but let’s go on south, and to another continent: Africa. Indian cinema seems to not have had much to do with Africa except in rare films like Fearless Nadia’s Jungle Princess, or Taqdeer, or Chandni Chowk. Which does strike me as a little odd, considering so many Indians went to Africa in the 19th century, and even later.
Anyhow, here we are, in a city that’s almost mythical. Timbaktu, once believed to be an African El Dorado, its streets paved with gold. Timbaktu, the ‘City of 333 Saints’, a pilgrimage centre of extreme importance. And, a city with a name that rolls off the tongue so easily, it begs to be incorporated into a song—and here it is, teamed up incongruously with Kathmandu, neither city having anything to do with the song itself. Just a word to rhyme with something else.
8. Mombasa Mombasa (Sargam, 1950): Another song that mentions an African city (in this case the Kenyan coastal city of Mombasa), and the good thing here is that—while the song itself isn’t about Mombasa, at least the setting is somewhere on the East African coast. Our hero and heroine have washed up here after having been on a ship, and find themselves taken into an African tribe, along with sundry other fellow-passengers. Much happens in the course of this song (it is, in fact, one of those ‘climax songs’—the film’s main action near the end takes place while the singing is going on). Starting off as a song of despair, it acquires a different—and more upbeat—tone when Raj Kapoor’s character puts in an appearance.
9. Samarqand ke, Yarkand ke, Tashkent ke (Changez Khan, 1957): Moving on from Africa, up north and into Central Asia. With a song that covers not just one city, but three: Samarqand (in what is now Uzbekistan), Yarkand (Uighur Autonomous Region, China) and Tashkent (also Uzbekistan). The gifts of these cities, sing the two women, are bright, full of light. They go on to list all that may be found in these cities, all the stunning and delectable delights: bulbuls from Balkh, sandalwood from Greece, muslins from Hindustan, which promise to turn any woman into a hourie straight from Paradise… there are gifts from the Nile Valley; from Tehran and from the Sultan of Arabia, silks from China. But no, the woman they’re trying to tempt with all these beauties refuses; all she wants is her lover, the one she pines for.
10. Ek din Lahore ki thandi sadak (Sagaai, 1951): And, to end (after having done a complete circuit of the globe) we come back to the border. To a neighbour: Pakistan. In this hilarious song sung by a pair of soundly chastised ‘roadside Romeos’, a group of pretty girls strolling down a street on a cool evening in Lahore give back as good as they get—and with better effect. There’s nothing really about Lahore itself in this song (and it certainly isn’t picturized in that city, but on a stage, where a performance is being held), but it’s a delightful song nonetheless.
So that’s my list. Which songs would you add to this?